I finished my last article about three weeks ago with a relatively upbeat message, ‘We’re all in this together’, meaning we are all in the same boat. However, as the weeks progress into an increasingly unknown future, I realise that we are in very, very different boats indeed.
I started by reassuring myself with this Churchillian mantra, but now that the initial fog has cleared, I am observing first hand that we are all in very different boats on a scale ranging from a blissful, relaxed euphoria through to a lonely pinnacle of rising fear and angst, and the curve is the inverse of the traditional Gaussian Distribution curve.
Here in Slovenia, many people are employed and from what I hear, rather enjoying working from home, or they are bumbling along on their pension, living above or below their extended families, and whiling away quality time in the garden, or allotment with family. As my landlady said when it all started, ‘It’s not going to affect us.’ - and it hasn’t.
However, I know several families living the dream life – the successful, but workaholic husbands now garrisoned at home; the wives, gleefully swapping their crowded waiting rooms or tedious working days for woodland walks with the dog, finally having the time to show off innate cooking skills to an appreciative family; children, home from university are studying in domestic and gastronomic comfort, and working out in the garden to counteract the excesses of the kitchen. Bliss.
So in this most glorious Corona spring, when the sun always shines, the more fortunate can relax in their flower- filled gardens with the added comfort of knowing that there is a regular salary coming in.
Another fortunate Slovenian friend lives in a similar abode complete with all the external accoutrements of above, in the congenial company of her two twenty-something children and her buck-toothed, boss-eyed, but exceedingly friendly Jack Russell. All three humans are working from home, with ample space to carouse in the garden or work peacefully in the spacious confines of their five-bedroom home.
Fast-forward to the other end of the curve, where many are most definitely not living in such familial bliss. They inhabit cramped flats with no balconies, and worse still, some have no option but to co-habit with an obnoxious other half, vying for TV channels, and generally messing things up - or worse! This situation can also be exacerbated by having hyperactive children around to monitor . The attention seeking child doesn’t take kindly to being educated by a face on a screen with no audience other than the family cat. Whether working from home or with no work, in small confines the tensions are building. The only saving grace, in Slovenia, is the relative proximity of the parks, the river and the abundance of glorious greenery. Compare all this lush nature to the average Londoner’s concrete jungle, living in similar flat, with the added worry of a zero-hour contract.
They struggle miles on foot to get some rays on Primrose Hill or Hampstead Heath, before being brusquely moved on by overzealous police wearing masks. Gardens are a rarity in Inner London and parks and woodland scarce. The main reason I chose my London flat was for its long ample garden, and the unimpeded view of nearby Highgate Woods.
In fact, this article was prompted by an email from a semi-retired journalist friend, who wrote unabashedly ‘life has never been better’. She can scribble her weekly column in her gazebo in their vast flower-strewn garden, while her retired husband refines his already excellent culinary skills. She didn’t mention her newly-wed daughter and her husband who are in the ranks of the self-employed, a yoga instructor and a chef respectively, both now living with future dreams on fragile hold for the very uncertain future. Very different boats indeed.
Having lived overseas for the last 13 years, I am still in touch with friends in Asia and Central America, and they are in even less comfortable boats. In an ironical twist, as Europe and the UK once stigmatised innocent Asians in the run-up to the crisis, Viet friends, encouraged by their government propaganda, wholeheartedly blame the virus on the travelling Westerners, and in China, my very petite blonde Australian friend currently working as a School Principal tells me that despite her ’COVID free badge’, mask, gloves and her 21-day quarantine pass, she is treated like a white devil. Chinese mothers pick up their children and literally flee when they see her blonde locks, restaurants refuse her entry – and people in shops, look at her over their compulsory issue masks with cold, untrusting eyes and give her a very wide berth.
Masks are compulsory at all times – and in Vietnam, as in many other Asian countries, they have a natural affinity for masks. Reports from Vietnamese friends say they that although they are working from home, masks are worn at all times – I didn’t ask about bedtime. There are no motorbike taxis or car taxis, and large hotels and markets are shut. Many have lost their jobs.
Meanwhile in Spain, my old schoolfriend is entrapped in her mountain village and is currently dogless, therefore her exercise is limited to the 200-metre walk from her home in the centre to the nearest food and wine shops – a 600 Euro fine awaits anyone who is found exploiting the rule. Her 85-year-old Scottish mother died two weeks ago, alone in a hospital in Scotland of an unrelated infection, possibly exacerbated by fear. For the last four days of her life, she relied on an iPad and daily 15 minute visits from her other daughter,clad from head to foot in a hazard suit, forbidden to touch. My friend in Spain at least has the small solace of a garden, where she is grieving alone, without any sense of closure, and trying to plan a memorial service in the unforeseen future.
Meanwhile, in Istanbul, a hyperactive party- going Australian couple, aged 63 and 65 respectively, working as teachers and energetically living a second, but childfree youth, are forbidden to leave their homes,full stop. Despite a small balcony and a 40-year marriage, they are becoming increasingly unamused and after two weeks, are already showing severe symptoms of Cabin Fever manifesting in 3 kg weight increases and an unhealthy addiction to Quiz Planet, as the lady of the house tries to elevate her starting score of zero to 21,000 before the lockdown is over. Turkey is in flux, and the once crowded streets are spookily empty, Erdogan from his 1000 roomed palace in Ankara, has sent one of his national emergency texts ( to everyone) asking the population to contribute 10 TL ( 3 Euros) to a Corona fund.
Looking further afield to Nicaragua, the situation is even more grim – with practically no direction from their government, other than some ‘Peace and Love ‘ rally in the capital, and the divine message that along with Americans, Nicaraguans will not get affected.
My Yorkshire Oxford-educated friend, the founder of a language school and a charity that provides hands-on work for 80% of the impoverished village where she lives, located in the shadow of the virulent Massaya volcano. She tells me that news is being passed from door to door by groups of five or six police together with a handful of civil servants, all standing in perilous clusters. They are distributing COVID pamphlets on the importance of washing your hands thoroughly and often. The same pamphlet also explains the need to reduce their weekly water ration from 2 barrels of water to one and a half barrels. This ration is per household, and that usually equates to at least six people. The water is used to wash, cook, wash their clothes and to drink. Toilets are usually outdoor latrines, so flushing is not a problem for most. Very few people are on the streets, and most pulperia (small shops) have had to close. And to date, there has been no word of government assistance or even guidance, as the village limps to a gloom laden standstill.
Then there is another boat where you sail these uncharted waters alone, and for many elderly without the ‘company’ of social media, and the physical security of a family this is very scary – alone and listening to the spurious daily statistics spewed willy nilly all over the global media; meaningless to those who understand statistics and positively terrifying for those who don’t – and with no one close by to share their fears.
Even for the less elderly, this enforced social distancing is difficult – mentally and emotionally, and I, for one have wearied of the endless ‘jokes’ on WhatsApp and unsubstantiated rants by the uninitiated on social media.I yearn for the close physical comfort of old friends, even a distanced bike ride or a glass of wine would be good, but then again, I fear my self, all my suppressed fears and emotions may come belching out in an unstoppable tirade......
Daily, I have to remind myself that I am not living in fear of snipers, bombs or starvation, I have a roof over my head and at present, I am healthy – plus, I live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world close to the river and nature. I am very lucky.
In response to the copiously asked daily question from well-meaning friends of ‘How are you?’ I answer robotically ‘Up and down, how are you?’ Maybe I should answer truthfully. ‘I don’t know!’